Remembering Balu Mahendra

May 18, 2017 at 9:19 pm

On the late filmmaker’s birth anniversary, MetroPlus checks out his studio and film school, his most regular haunts

“Ask anyone for Balu Mahendra’s studio. They will know,” director M Muhilan tells me over the phone. Drive into one of the lanes in Dasarathapuram, and you will reach a two-storeyed playschool. Until 2014, this was the same building where the legendary filmmaker Balu Mahendra ran a film school called Cinema Pattarai that offered a one-year course in filmmaking and a six-month course in acting. Adjacent to it is the mustard-coloured Mahendra’s Studio Branded, a shooting locale for ad filmmakers and directors such as Vetrimaran.

One room in the building still retains some flavour and memories of the director. This is now used as a make-up room. On the wall hang black-and-white photos of a young Mahendra. In one, he talks to a dashing Kamal Haasan on the sets of Moondram Pirai, and in the other, he is at the location of Veedu, which was also shot here.

Today, on the occasion of his birthday, a few of his students have gathered in the same spot to remember their teacher. “It was gurukulam for us,” says Muhilan, his student. “He would teach us the basics of filmmaking — ranging from editing to cinematography. For him, a filmmaker had to be proficient in all aspects.”

He made filmmaking sound like a daily activity, they say. “When it came to technical details of aperture and shutter speed, he would teach us using just a kuchi and a tumbler,” says Sundhar Rajan, a filmmaker. Artistes from Koothu-P-Pattarai and National School of Drama would impart lessons. Kanna Ravi, an actor, still recalls his first interview with Balu Mahendra. “When he asked me to name a few foreign films I’ve watched, I listed out the usual Hollywood fare. Looking exasperated, he replied: ‘Illappa…do you have the habit of watching world cinema?’”

As a teacher, he was very patient, says Rajan. “He would pay individual attention to all. He would leave you with a vision and transform your idea of cinema.” For instance, he would remind them of the importance of music in cinema. “He would say, ‘When you read a book, you underline an important line. That’s the role of music’,” remembers Muhilan.

For him, the script was sacrosanct. He would instruct his students to not over-act and do what the script demanded, says Aroul D Shankar, an established character artiste. “He would say “nadichu tholakkathinga”. He taught us that movies were not where you flaunted individual talent. If you did, you made a dent in the story.”

They also imbibed some values from him, and one of them was punctuality. “If classes started at 9 am, he would expect you in class by 8.30 am and close the doors at 8.45 am,” says Muhilan. “He would wake up at four in the morning. A brisk walk was mandatory.” And, during shooting, the time between 6 am and 8 am, and twilight were precious to him, says Rajan.

He was anything but a celebrity, says filmmaker Srikantan, whose notion of cinema changed after he met Mahendra . “After seeing him, I realised a filmmaker can be humble. He would hang out with us in normal tea shops, walk instead of taking an auto, and he was not very fond of people falling at his feet.” They could confide in him their most personal matters, says Shankar. “Even if you met him after a gap, he would remember where you had left a conversation and begin from there.” His student S Kalai Selvan, who is now a cinematographer, says he was almost like family. “He loved to cook. And, he would pay the same level of attention to cooking as he did to his films.”

Mahendra was keen to hang out with youngsters who loved cinema than celebrities. Muhilan recalls an incident where he had accompanied him to the wedding of someone from the cine field. “We heard that Rajinikanth would arrive at 7 am. I was excited. But, sir burst my bubble saying, ‘We will go early and leave at 6.30.’” He was never dependent on others’ praise, says Shankar. “I have watched his Julie Ganapathi six times. Even though the movie was not a hit, he held it quite close to his heart. He did not need other people’s words of appreciation. If he felt good about his work, that was good enough for him.”

×the hindu